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Pipeline, Issue #396

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Pipeline, Issue #396

PIPELINE PODCAST #2Updated 1/12/05

This week, I’m looking a lot at trades coming out and what they say about spending habits. Plus, a question for the retailers in the audience and a thanks to those who’ve responded to this week’s column already.

Most importantly, we have an RSS feed! It is http://www.comicbookresources.com/rss/podcast_pipeline.xml

Cut and paste that URL into your favorite iPodder and you’ll be subscribed.

I’ll have more details on the CBR RSS page in the days ahead.

If you’d like to listen to the show directly, you can grab the MP3 file. It’s 2.5 MB for just over six minutes’ worth of podcast.

Pipeline Podcast #1 is also included in the feed.

Some of the highlights:

WILL EISNER

I’ve thought a lot about Will Eisner this past week. Sadly, it’s usually someone’s death that makes us truly think about them, perhaps for the first time. Before that, they’re someone you take for granted. When that person is 87 and still publishing new material, it’s an easy mistake to make, I guess. But, hey, there’s always next San Diego, right?

Not this time. Nope.

I’ve taken a couple of stabs at Eisner’s work in the past, but never became completely enthralled by it, for whatever reason. The one book that I did latch onto was his COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART book, which I think is even more practical, entertaining, and informative than Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS. It’s less about theory, and more about practicality. Eisner’s examples in that book are perfect to help you understand comics. More than that, they give you an insight into Eisner’s personal view of comics. That comes in handy when reading his comics.

An Eisner comic is not your typical comic. I don’t mean that just because he never drew superheroes. There are plenty of artists out there drawing comic books that aren’t superheroes, but that fit the same mold of storytelling as superhero comics do. Give them a grid, some panel borders, and someone to squeeze the lettering in wherever possible, and you have a comic book. All too often, not much more thought is given to it.

Eisner went beyond that. He was a cartoonist in the richest sense of the term: writing, drawing, lettering, and occasionally even coloring his own stuff. His vision was singular, and doing everything by himself meant that it all blended neatly together. There are very few who work like that left today.

Eisner’s art flows in a way that no other artist is producing today. Eisner worked in this style for at least the past 25 years, but nobody’s ever bothered to emulate it. Panels present themselves on the page as a natural outgrowth of the storytelling. Eisner didn’t need borders and gutters. He created them through shadows, smoke clouds, and natural barriers presented in the background art. Nobody ever drew a more useful staircase or plume of smoke than Eisner did. They were structure as well as ornamentation, guiding the eye through a story told with as much literary merit as anything excerpted in one of those fancy society magazines.

His cartooning style was a beautiful blend of serious and, well, goofy. His characters often acted like they were on stage, emoting to the back rows. Very rarely did they stand up straight, preferring a slight bend at the knees and often a stoop in their step. He was a cartoonist without fail. He knew what to exaggerate and when. While you could easily identify one of his drawings at first glance, there was no model upon which all his characters were based. Eisner truly drew different people in different ways. Everything from body types to facial features, haircuts, and postures were used to create new characters every time out.

Eisner was also keen on his lettering, which automatically endears him to me. His most famous title pages depended on his sense of design and layout. The lettering was often built into the backgrounds or objects in the scene. The examples are both large and small. Take the title page of A CONTRACT WITH GOD, for example. The first three words are presented as if they were chiseled out of stone, perhaps even evoking the Ten Commandments. “God” is created with a lettering style that mimics Hebrew lettering, but without literally translating the text or directly using letterforms from that alphabet. It’s merely the sweep of the pen used in creating the letters that brings it to the fore. Simple, but brilliant. Today’s artist would just find a fancy font and splash it across the top of the page, I’m afraid. Eisner thought about it.

That goes for all his lettering, which blended so well with the artwork. At times, it could melt, freeze, or slide with the art. The lettering showed an additional layer of emotion that nobody tries for anymore today. The strange thing is that Eisner didn’t need it. His characters showed power, no matter their emotion. The lettering blended in so beautifully for maintaining the same feel as the art, but he didn’t need it to. He just didn’t know how NOT TO make lettering that makes sense with the book.

After re-reading CONTRACT this week, I opened up Dark Horse’s recent WILL EISNER SKETCHBOOK. Eisner’s original pencil pages from the book are excerpted there. And while his layouts and artwork looked fairly tight, they didn’t tell the whole story. The lettering is merely roughed into the art at that stage. If the words are to sit in a blackened balloon to convey anger and wrath, that’s saved for the inking stage. If the lettering should shatter with the wrath of an angry God, that’ll be detailed in at the last moment.

Tangent #1: There will be a movement this year, I’m sure, to give Will Eisner every Eisner Award in the book. I hope it doesn’t come to that. There was a twinkle in the man’s eyes that you could see from the cheap seats at the Eisners every time he gave an award to a young talent displaying remarkable achievement. Eisner, himself, only ever won one or two of his own awards, and that seems fitting. I hope there’s not a big movement to give them to him posthumously. If, however, someone wanted to toss his name in the ring in the lettering category, I wouldn’t argue with it.

The problem with all of this conjecture, though, is that I don’t think Eisner published any new work in 2004. FAGIN THE JEW and SUNDIATA and even Dark Horse’s magnificent WILL EISNER SKETCHBOOK were all 2003 books. Only the SPIRIT archival collections are probably eligible. His upcoming THE PLOT book, though, might rightfully earn its share of nominations next year.

Tangent #2: This one is for the SPIRIT experts in the house. Where would you suggest starting to read those stories? I picked up the second volume and it didn’t yet contain all the storytelling tricks that Eisner became famous for in the series. Did the invention come at any pronounced spot that I could start reading from? Drop me a line and let me know. I’d be interested in those.

Back to Eisner. . .

Beyond all of the artistry, Eisner was a thinker. He was an observer. He had a keen eye for personalities and the traits that people possess. You don’t need to look any further than his CITY PEOPLE NOTEBOOK for that. A book created out of his sketches drawn from real life, the book is an essay on what city people are really like. Told in a series of short and usually humorous vignettes, Eisner outlines the unique pressures and habits that city people live with. It goes beyond the “hurry up and wait” attitude that first jumps to my mind. It extends into the smells, the sights, the trading of information, the privacy, the lack of space, and more. Eisner nails all of it in less than 100 pages.

His own experiences informed much of his work. Growing up Jewish in the city tenements brought about a wealth of material from which he could draw. Reading his obituary last week, I took note of the death of his daughter in 1969. Knowing that, CONTRACT WITH GOD with takes on a fuller and deeper meaning. My question with that book used to be just how closely the Will in the final story was modeled after himself. Now, I want to know how much of Frimme Hersh is Will Eisner. While I doubt that Eisner was a miserly landlord, the questioning of God and the pleas to the rabbis are things that I could imagine a grieving father going through.

And while I focus mostly on the art here, Eisner was a great writer, as well. You see it in his editorial text or even some of the introductions in his books. I’d trip myself up quite badly trying to write something like his sequential art books, or this from the preface of CONTRACT:

“At the time, to openly discuss comic as an art form — or indeed to claim any autonomy or legitimacy for them — was considered a gross presumption worthy only of ridicule. In the intervening years, however, recognition and acceptance has fertilized the soil, and sequential art stands art the threshold of joining the cultural establishment.”

Much has been written about the rise of the graphic novel in recent years, but nothing quite so eloquent. Of course, Eisner might have been 25 years ahead of his time with that paragraph.

Whether you see Eisner as the master of the artform, a comics visionary, or just the spunky elder statesman, there’s no doubt we lost a great one last week. Cliché though it may be, I’m glad I have a lot of great reading ahead of me to remember him by.

THIS WEEK’S READING

I’ve not yet read half of Eisner’s graphic novels, a mistake I intend to correct this year.

Here’s a rundown of what I’ve read in the past week since Eisner passed. I know I have another book or two in the collection, but they’re temporarily lost in piles of boxes at storage.

NBM published three graphic novels in recent years that Eisner aimed at a much younger audience. You have to take the audience into account when considering them. Those are MOBY DICK, THE PRINCESS & THE FROG, and THE LAST KNIGHT (a Don Quixote retelling). Each book is oversized with about 30 pages of story. As you can imagine, this means a lot of “liberties” were taken, and the end result often feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of the stories. Still, each has its own charms.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is the biggest winner, by far. Being the simplest story to begin with, it doesn’t lose too much in the translation. Eisner also pours on the charm in the story to infuse the characters with all the stereotypical traits of fairy tale characters, from the vain princess to the mean witch, and the selfish wizard. The story is not constrained by any grid of panels, as happens in the other adapted books in this series. Here, Eisner is free to wash over the page. It’s a vast improvement. This one’s not merely a rote retelling of the story. Eisner infuses all of his own energy into a book that a lesser main might have hacked out in his sleep. Even the color work shows the best palette of the lot.

MOBY DICK is probably the biggest disappointment. Eisner sticks to a strict six-panel grid throughout the book, which means that all of his storytelling quirks are lost, save for the title page. While he hits all the beats and story points necessary to tell the story, I would have liked a bit more character work. Again, this is a function of a lack of space. Is there enough story, though, to excite a younger reader to Melville’s works? Perhaps there is. You still have dramatic storms, stoic ships, a crazy captain, a large native, and even some whaling scenes that would be new and interesting to a kid today. (It might make him or her squirm, too.)

The third adaptation, THE LAST KING, is one I reviewed a couple of years ago. Reading that review now, I can see I haven’t changed my mind about this series in the intervening years. However, Eisner did an excellent job with what he added to the story, and the storytelling is much looser than in MOBY DICK.

A CONTRACT WITH GOD is the grand daddy of them all, isn’t it? Four short stories comprise the book, all centered on a group of people living in the tenements of New York City in the 1930s. The title chapter sets the location as one filled with harried jewish immigrants. One man’s crisis of faith turns to greed and resentment, but it’s the faith that will redeem him. Eisner is at his best in this story. The page layouts are well-choreographed, incorporating bits of text that are designed to be on the page right where they are. The characters emote beautifully, filling up the page with movement and character-defining moments.

Eisner draws a lot of rain in this story, which might remind eagle-eyed readers of Frank Miller’s SIN CITY. Eisner is obviously an influence.

The second story feels like a real life TWILIGHT ZONE story, for the twists Eisner includes in it. A wandering minstrel wanders up and down the alleys of the tenements, singing for whatever spare change might drop down from below. When an aging opera diva hears his voice and falls in love with the man, her plans for him could change his life.

The third story, “The Super,” is a harrowing tale of the German super of our starring Dropsie Avenue tenement. He’s a bit gruff and not terribly street smart. When he makes one mistake out of stupidity and loneliness, things quickly snowball out of control. After this story, you know that Eisner isn’t always in this to tell stories about good always winning, or even always existing. This story lives in the grays. And this one is pretty dark.

The final story, “Cookalien,” is the most complicated and most challenging yarn in the book. It revolves around multiple characters taking time away from their day jobs to trek up to the Catskills on holiday. Societal pressure being what it is, the young woman is headed up there to find her rich mate. The men are going up there to get lucky. And the families go up there to keep the kids busy for a short time. These events all collide together in melodramatic ways, but it doesn’t feel forced.

CITY PEOPLE NOTEBOOK gets back to what I said earlier about Eisner being a gifted observer of human behavior. What started as doodles in his notebook become a collection of interludes identifying common themes in city living with a sharp wit. The different stories and storytelling styles they necessitate, gives Eisner a chance to experiment with his art and technique. Some parts read like excerpts from MAD Magazine. Others are like quaint NEW YORKER gag panels. Some are attempts to anthropomorphize cities and their buildings. It’s a quick read, but very rewarding.

The WILL EISNER READER has seven short stories in it, most of which are later reprinted in his GRAPHIC STORYTELLING book as examples. I like the original Kitchen Sink Press printing better, though. The main reason has to do with the story I bought this volume for in the first place. “The Long Hit” is a nine-page story that begins with a hit man killing a guy named “Augie.” How could I pass that up? While the story starts off menacing, by the end it becomes a bit of a dark comedy. The trick here is that Eisner is telling the story in two different time periods at once, through a clever visual trick. The bottom panel is “today,” while the upper three quarters of the page is the flashback. They merge a little later in the story. In the original printing, everything is printed in solid black tones. In the GRAPHIC STORYTELLING book, though, the flashback panels are grayed out. The effect is jarring to my eye, particularly with the lettering remaining solid black. In either case, it’s a cute story that once again hits on Eisner’s familiar theme of growing old and being sent out to pasture to a condo in Florida. That’s something that happened to Eisner in the late 1980s. Thankfully, he didn’t give up the drawing board. Lucky us.

If you’re looking for someplace to start with Eisner’s work, I can heartily recommend any of the last three books I just mentioned. LAST DAY IN VIETNAM (Dark Horse) is also in much the same vein: a series of short stories of differing tones built around a common theme or time period. I reviewed the book back in May, 2000.

Finally, if you’re a fan of UNDERSTANDING COMICS, you owe it to yourself to pick up COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART.

THE PIPELINE PODCAST

When you might not have been looking, we debuted the Pipeline Podcast in this space last Wednesday. Click through to last week’s column and see the addition made at the top for all the information you need to hear me ramble on about the week’s new releases.

Reaction to the first podcast was strong, and a second one is on its way this week. We don’t have the RSS feed set up just yet, but I promise it’s coming and I’ll tell you here just as soon as you can subscribe to it. Check the Pipeline message board for updates.

Next week: I try not to make new year’s resolutions, but I think I’ll make a promise for the year 2005 here. I’m not going to tease next week’s column unless it’s at least half written. Too many things happen and plans inevitably change at the last minute.

I can tell you that you’ll see more reviews of SIN CITY and Eisner’s work in the weeks ahead. That much I know. Of course, Eisner and Miller also have a book coming out from Dark Horse this spring. This might be a good time to read Eisner’s SHOP TALK in advance of that.


The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast is now three weeks old and gathering some serious steam. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to it right here. It’s listed in a category all its own under “DVD” in the podcasting directory.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: Will money change Google? American Idol 4 is just around the corner. Why doesn’t Amazon advertise on TV? What’s wrong with Podcasting? Fraggle songs, iPodding in your car, a neat comic strip search trick, and more.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one side at VandS Politics.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page. I haven’t had that account in years, but they’ve yet to delete the page space. Bizarre.

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